Lessons from the Life of Joseph (5)
“God’s Time, God’s Plan”
Last week we saw how Joseph was given a free, one-way ticket to prison – to a dark & dirty dungeon. He had been falsely accused and humanly speaking was in a hopeless situation. Yet we saw that even in that terrible place the Lord was with him. If Joseph had been bitter against his boss for treating him so unfairly, he might have simply sat down & felt sorry for himself. He could so easily have fussed about Egyptian racial discrimination, the injustice of the system, or even about how unfair God was. But Joseph was just as ready to trust God when things looked grim as when things were going well.
No doubt Joseph’s attitudes & reactions were very different to those of the average prisoner, and the warden noticed. God moved upon the warden’s heart, and he took a liking to Joseph. Not only that, before long the warden put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners. In Genesis 39:22 that “…the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph's care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.” What an amazing guy! Joseph’s relationship with God so shaped his attitudes and actions that the people around him couldn’t help but notice.
I read this week about Christians in Iran. Despite the opposition they face, the church continues to grow. Very often the greatest influence in bringing Iranians to faith in Jesus is the lives of the Christians they meet. The report I read mentioned a lady who reversed her car into another car. The lady who caused the accident was very distressed, not only by the accident but because her life was collapsing around her. Her husband was being unfaithful and wanted a divorce. Just before the accident they had had a big argument. The other car which she damaged happened to belong to a Christian couple. That evening the lady went to their home to pay for the damage she had caused. Sensing they were loving & sympathetic the lady poured out her troubles to them. As they listened the Christians forgot about their car and were more concerned for the lady. They told her not to worry about the payment, and shared the Gospel with her. That night the lady asked Jesus to become her Saviour. The love of those Christians opened her heart to the love of God.
Joseph’s life was a witness to others. He was so focused on living for God, even in prison, that his main concern was not himself. His focus was not on his own troubles or the injustices done to him. He was more focussed on the needs of others.
Something very significant was about to happen in Joseph’s life. The prison where he was held was under the jurisdiction of Joseph’s former boss, Potiphar. Potiphar was the Captain of the Guard, in charge of national security for the whole of Egypt, so this prison must have been largely reserved for political prisoners. One day two very high officials were unexpectedly brought in as prisoners. They had offended Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. One was his cupbearer & the other his chief baker. You might think being a butler and being a cook were not very important positions – but in those days, daily in touch with the supreme ruler, the emperor, they actually were extremely important positions. The chief baker was in charge of Pharaoh’s food & the cupbearer tasted the food & drink before it was given to Pharaoh. Of course if anything was poisoned the cupbearer would suffer, not Pharaoh. We don’t know how the two officials offended Pharaoh but they possibly had been suspected of plotting against him. They faced a very uncertain future. Interestingly, it must have been Potiphar, Joseph’s former boss, who instructed the prison warden to assign them to Joseph. This was not just a “coincidence” – no, God planned it. He was in control of Joseph’s life. Joseph did not know it at the time but his being assigned to help these two men was all part of that plan.
When I graduated from university I asked the education authorities if I could be assigned to teach in a black high school near the town of Gweru, in central Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). As a white Christian I wanted to give something back to my fellow countrymen who were black. Much to my disappointment the education department refused my request but sent me instead to a high school for Indian students in my home town of Bulawayo. It was God’s plan for not only did I learn more about Indians (both Hindus & Muslims) but I learnt to love them too. On top of that I met the girl who was to become my wife. We were to have almost 25 years together before she was called home to heaven. Just the year I started my teaching career she started her training at the Teachers’ College. We met at church. If I had gone to Gweru to teach I might never have met her! Wow, am I glad God was in control!
We read in vrs 4 & 5, “After they had been in custody for some time, each of the two men - the cupbearer & the baker of the king of Egypt had a dream the same night, & each dream had a meaning of its own.” Joseph who was responsible for these two guys noticed something was affecting them. He was so freed from self-pity that he could take pity on others. Rather than be moody thinking only of himself, he was able to be sensitive to the moods of others. Verses 6 & 7 continue: “When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh's officials who were in custody with him in his master's house, ‘Why are your faces so sad today?’” He noticed, and he showed concern. He was ready to help.
There was a Christian professor who fell into deep depression. He felt so discouraged, so hopeless. One day a friend suggested he think of people who had been a help to him in the past and write a letter to one or two of them to tell them of his gratitude. The professor thought about it for a while. Into his mind came the face of one of his primary school teachers. She had given him a real love for literature. He decided to write and thank her for inspiring him all those years earlier. Not long afterwards he received a letter in shaky handwriting from his old teacher, now in her late eighties. She wrote: “My dear Willie, when I read your letter I was blinded with tears for I remember you as a little boy in my class. You have warmed my heart. I taught in school for fifty years. Yours is the first letter of thanks I have received from a former pupil and I will cherish your letter till the day I die.” The reply from his old teacher brought a beam of light into the heart & mind of the discouraged professor and he decided to write a few more thank you notes to others who had been special to him. He wrote another & another until he had written hundreds of such notes. By then his depression was gone! Dear friend, if you are overcome with self-pity or discouragement, remember Joseph and look around you to the needs of others. Joseph didn’t allow his circumstances to disrupt his relationship with God and he didn’t allow hurt or discouragement to stop him from caring about others.
Yes, Joseph noticed the sad faces of the two former officials & he asked them what was up. They replied in v 8, “We both had dreams …but there is no one to interpret them.” Joseph responded, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.” Joseph obviously had a special gift from God to interpret dreams, & he was willing to use that gift to help these men. He didn’t boast about it or draw attention to himself. Before offering to help interpret their dreams Joseph made sure they understood that only God could give the interpretations.
This has lessons for us as we serve the Lord. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, whether they are the more spectacular ones or the more seemingly ordinary ones, are all given by God. They are given not for self glorification but in order to build up the body of Christ & extend the Kingdom of God. If we have been given a certain gift, or gifts, it is not something that we should boast about. We did not earn the gifts. They were given and we must use them for God’s glory. Even natural talents & blessings, including money, physical beauty or intelligence, practical skill, etc. are gifts from God which we are to use for the blessing of others & the glory of God.
The first of the two former officials, the cupbearer, was happy to tell Joseph his dream. Vrs 9-11 tell us, “He said to him, ‘In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, & on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, & its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, & I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup & put the cup in his hand.’” Without hesitation Joseph told the man the interpretation of the dream. He told the cupbearer that within 3 days he would be restored to his former position. Joseph was putting himself on the line, wasn’t he! He would look a real fool if nothing happened but of course God had shown him the interpretation & so he spoke with confidence.
We also get a glimpse here of the fact even though Joseph was a remarkable young man, he was also human. He also had his feelings. He had his hopes & dreams. Look what he says to the cupbearer in vrs 14 & 15: “…when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.” Joseph was human. He didn’t like being in a dungeon. He didn’t like being ill treated. No one does.
Joseph now faced a new challenge. When the other guy, the disgraced chief baker, saw that Joseph had given the cupbearer “a favourable interpretation”, he too wanted Joseph to interpret his dream for him. Maybe he thought, “Wow, in 3 days he’ll be out of this hole and back in his job! That sounds terrific. Maybe Joseph can give me some good news too.” So he told Joseph his dream: “On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.” (Vrs 16 & 17) Would Joseph tell him the truth? Joseph knew the interpretation and it was not good news for the baker – for after three days he was to lose his head. He was to be hanged. Would Joseph try to avoid upsetting the baker and make up something less shocking? After all, the baker would be dead anyway. No, Joseph had to be true to what God told him even if it meant sharing unpleasant truth. In fact telling the truth to this man would possibly have helped him better prepare for the sad fact he was going to die.
You and I need to learn from Joseph. Truth matters. Politicians often say the things they think people want them to say. They do not always set policy according to principle but more often according to what is politically correct. As a pastor I dare not be like a politician. I have to tell you what God’s Word says, not what people would prefer me to say. People are lost without hope in this world unless they turn to God in repentance. There is heaven (the good news) & there is also hell (the bad news). One day we too will die, and we will either go to heaven or to hell. How we respond to Jesus in this life will determine where we will be in the next life. This is deadly serious stuff. We cannot simply say the things people would like to hear. We have to tell the truth.
Joseph told the truth, even to the chief baker and, sure enough, 3 days later everything happened just as God had shown Joseph it would happen. Vrs 21 & 23 say, the Pharaoh “…restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh's hand, but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.”
Joseph’s life had had plenty of ups & downs. He had experienced shattered dreams and was about to suffer yet another huge disappointment. On the day the cupbearer was released I can imagine him taking Joseph by the hand & saying, “Thanks for everything, Joe. You’ve been fantastic. I don’t know how I‘d have got through without you. I won’t forget you. Yes, I’ll put in a good word for you, as soon as I have the chance. Rest assured, my friend.”
Did he keep his promise to Joseph? The Scripture says it simply: “The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” (v 23) That is how chapter 40 finishes but fortunately it is not how the story finishes. Joseph had further lessons to learn in the dungeon. One was that even the best people can disappoint us at times. People sometimes let us down. They do not meet up to our hopes & expectations. This should not surprise us of course because we too so easily let others down. We too sometimes fail & disappoint those we love. The lesson here is that we should not primarily be relying upon people but rather upon the Lord. People can be the secondary cause of us reaching some goal or completing some plan but our ultimate confidence & trust must be in the Lord. Psalm 20:7 puts it well: “Some trust in chariots & some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Joseph had two more years to wait before he saw the outworking of the plan of God. The things he learnt in those two years of looking to God alone & waiting for His time were very important. In all the unexpected ups & downs in life we need constantly to check & possibly to re-adjust our attitudes. We need to ask ourselves if we are still focussing on God, if we are still resting in His unchanging love, if we are living in obedience & faith. These were important lessons for Joseph to learn & they are important lessons for us to learn too.